Someone asked me today at work why we Catholics wear ashes on our forehead. I explained that it was the beginning of the penitential season, that the ashes are taken from palm branches from the previous year's Palm Sunday, that "we are but ashes and to ashes we shall return," etc.
But that never really answered the question as to why we wear them. Are we being branded like Jews with the star of David during the Holocaust? Or are we flaunting something, looking to be 'set apart,' acknowledged, congratulated for having gone to church or for being good Catholics or whatever. If that is the case, it seems contrary to what Jesus says when he tells people to wash their faces when they are fasting, to do all this in secret, so as not to attract attention to oneself as the hypocrites do. For that reason I was tempted to wash the soot off my forehead. But part of me felt they served a purpose. I just couldn't put my finger on it just yet.
Maybe it is a kind of branding, these ashes. If we claim to be Christian, when we are marked in this way, it holds us visibly accountable to our actions, behavior, and demeanor. It puts us in the spotlight (or under a microscope), not so that we might show off our good deeds, but so that others might see us and either be edified or scandalized, for "nothing is hidden, except to be revealed; nor has anything been secret, but that it would come to light."
Jesus said to his apostles, "You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. " For this reason I think wearing ashes leaves no room for any kind of pride, since it is about giving humble witness, proclaiming through sign that we are sinners in need of forgiveness. At the same time, wearing ashes is a display of confident dignity that we are children of God, fallen, yes, but still followers of Christ, and that we are, indeed, called to light the way for those in darkness by our public witness...to be the light of the world.